11/25/2013 4:47 P.M. ET
Choo on this: Should Reds go after leadoff man?
Cincinnati mulls whether to bring back on-base machine, with asking price high
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
CINCINNATI -- There is no doubt that several teams -- the known and unknown -- pursuing free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo are finding out what the Reds learned last year during their due diligence.
There is no leadoff hitter who reaches base better than Choo. And that could very well be the reason he floats above the Reds' price threshold.
Acquired from the Indians on Dec. 11 in a three-way trade that sent outfielder Drew Stubbs to Cleveland and shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius to Arizona, Choo gave the Reds more than they could have ever expected from the top of the order.
While reaching safely 300 times over his 151 games in 2013, Choo led all Major League leadoff hitters with a .423 on-base percentage and 116 walks. His on-base percentage was second in the National League overall to teammate Joey Votto.
Cincinnati's 2012 numbers from the leadoff spot -- a.208 average and a .254 on-base percentage that was the lowest for any big league club in 31 years -- underscored what a boon Choo was for the club during his one season as a Red.
Choo, who made $7.375 million this past season, batted .285 with 21 home runs, 54 RBIs and 107 runs. The 31-year-old also set a new franchise record when he was hit by a pitch a Major League-leading 26 times.
For his career, the left-handed Choo is a .288 hitter with a .389 on-base percentage. His timing as a first-time free agent is about perfect, as demand for on-base guys is high while the market is light on such players. Choo is considered one of the top players on the open market this winter.
The question currently without an answer is how willing are the Reds to meet Choo's expected high salary demand -- one that has been widely speculated to reach $100 million with agent Scott Boras driving the train in negotiations. Would they pay an eight-figure annual salary? It would be difficult, but not impossible, to fathom Cincinnati going that high for Choo.
There are other larger market teams that wouldn't blink as much at such a price. Among the teams linked to Choo this winter have been the Yankees, Mets, Mariners, Tigers and Rangers.
On the other hand, the Yankees might be more inclined to pursue free agent Carlos Beltran, who is older at 36 and could take less years for a commitment. Seattle might prefer another free-agent leadoff hitter in Jacoby Ellsbury, who has regional ties being from Oregon. Texas just took a hit to its payroll by trading for first baseman Prince Fielder. Like the Reds, the Mets could pass on going up to nine figures for Choo.
While there are pros to signing Choo, there are a couple of cons. While he batted .317 with a .437 on-base percentage against right-handers, he batted only .215 vs. left-handed pitchers. However, the pro-inside-the con was his on-base percentage vs. lefties was still a very strong .347.
Over his career, Choo has had an OBP above .400 only one other time besides this past season -- .401 for Cleveland in 2010. Until this year, he never walked more than 100 times.
On the bases in 2013, Choo netted 20 steals, but was also caught 11 times.
Defensively, Choo -- normally a corner outfielder -- played out of position in center field for the Reds. He got to most of the balls hit to him, while making only four errors for a .989 fielding percentage. But the advanced metrics weren't so kind. According to Fangraphs.com, Choo ranked last among qualified center fielders with a -12 defense runs saved stat and a -16.9 ultimate zone rating.
To the bottom line sabermetrically, Choo's wins above replacement number was 5.2 on Fangraphs, and 4.2 on Baseball Reference.
Most teams, except the Reds, are expected to return Choo to a corner outfield spot. Eventually, that could be the case in Cincinnati, too.
The Reds have prospect Billy Hamilton waiting in the wings to potentially replace Choo, but they would prefer to bring the young speedster along a little more slowly. Hamilton has already proven he can run and play defense in center field, but hitting still remains a question mark. Even if he were wildly successful at the plate, it would still be a lot to ask of Hamilton to produce at Choo-like levels in reaching safely.
Cincinnati perhaps adds some help behind Hamilton in the expected signing of utility player Skip Schumaker, a lefty hitter that is strong vs. right-handed pitching.
No matter what they come up with, the Reds will likely need to find more than one way to fill the void of Choo's production if he moves on. Guys who reach base are clearly an in-demand item this offseason and hard to replace.